Before leaving home for missions I attended a one-week world mission course thinking that I had everything to gain and it could help me prepare for the gargantuan tasks that lay ahead. I was not disappointed; it was a good learning experience. We learn about Biblical basis for missions, the history and expansion of Christian movement through missions, mission strategy, the remaining task, strategies, and cross cultural considerations.
However, looking closely at the curriculum and materials presented, theological basis or at least any discussions about the importance of theology in doing missions was definitely lacking. The discussion was dominated by anthropological ideas about cross-cultural considerations. The course culminated with a very elaborate “contextualize worship.” This was when we had a Christian worship service done in Islamic way. We dressed like Muslims and adopted their gestures in prayers and worship but with God through Christ as the object of worship. I didn’t dispute this, I thought that was great. However, I got the impression that contextualization done in this manner is not really contextualization in the true sense of the world. But when this mission course was being done all over the country, this conveys to the churches and (would-be) missionaries that this is what contextualization is all about.
This is the reason that the idea of contextualization have been under fire recently. Its critics would say that contextualization advocates the integration of religious practices into the culture of the believer. For example, a Muslim who became a Christian can continue to go to the mosque and pray five times a day facing Mecca or moderately Christian Muslims can have a mosque like atmosphere, write their own music or use the Koran besides the Bible when they worship. This concept presumes that religion is part of cultural identity and should not be abandoned when one becomes a Christian. If contextualization is being dealt with on the level of anthropology or culture this perspective would really create a big problem for missionary endeavors. If contextualization is limited to culture it is indeed unhelpful and irresponsible concept, and as mentioned above likely to create more problems than solution.
This is the reason that I believe that contextualization should start from theology. Presumably contextualization leads to indigenization. There have been many attempts in many Asian countries to create an indigenous Christian churches. But most of the attempts are concern more with the form rather than the content of the gospel. For example the use of indigenous musical instruments and melodies for religious hymns, or using local drama and dress in presenting the Christmas story, or using the traditional church building as opposes to western style church building. According to a Burmese theologian, these are just attempts to put the same wine in different bottle. In order for the Gospel to be contextualized and acceptable in particular culture, a considerable theological reflections and articulations is essential even though many would consider this activity as pointless and redundant. This is in the light of the prevailing concepts that and theological skill and articulation are unnecessary in the missions field.
Stephen Bevans, a theologian, missionary and teacher provides a valuable assistance for those who struggle with the issue of theological contextualization. He describes models only four are cited here) for understanding contextual theology. These models are used to aid in the understanding of truth but the truth they tried to illuminate is finally larger than any model used to approach it.
First is the translation model. “Translation” suggests the movement from one language system to another, with the primary intent of maintaining the meaning of the words that are used. A translation model of contextual theology rests on the twin assumptions that the gospel may be reduced to a core of meaning, and that all cultures shares a similar structure of meaning and communication. The core of meaning emphasized by those who employ a translation model for theology is heavily quantitative and propositional. What is at stake is the introduction of the facts and concepts of the gospel to a context where the gospel was previously unknown.
Second is the anthropological model. Anthropological model strives for the preservation of the uniqueness of any culture where the gospel takes root and grows toward maturity. Since God is the creator of the world, and humanity, there must be something of God in every culture. This model begins with the affirmation of potential goodness of humanity and the cultures they establish. A theologian who employs this method recognizes that the foundational work of proclaiming the gospel is leaning much about a culture that she or he can become as full a participant as possible in the culture. Related to the foundational work of learning the culture is the explicit theological task of discerning the presence of God within the culture.
Third is the praxis model. This method includes expecting and accepting that authentic theological pursuits are constantly moving between informed and committed responses to human needs and reflections upon how the responses clarify and reshape confessions of faith. Culture, then, is the context within which the praxis model operates. However, culture is neither a target to be hit nor a goal to be achieved. Here culture is a dynamic reality that is going to change with or without theological influence and, therefore, becoming involved with culture is a theological mandate.
Fourth is the synthetic model. The theologian working with this model is first of all interested in dialogue between and among the features of the gospel and culture. Here the uniqueness of the gospel rooted in scripture and traditions, and the uniqueness of the culture as a composite of centuries of growth and change. Holding both the uniqueness of gospel and culture in tension, this model strives for the theological maturity that can emerge out of honest conversation about the ways the gospel and culture mutually pursue freedom and wholeness. Theologian who works with this model is not creating something artificial from synthesizing two realities (gospel and culture) rather creates a third thesis incorporating the best of each reality. The goal is not to rank the contributions of the gospel and culture, but rather to incorporate the values of the gospel and culture when they are most appropriate.(Rick Wilson, Contemporary Gospel Accents, 7-9)
This post attempts to inform missionaries and missionary sending bodies of the importance of theological skill in doing mission. If our goal is to realize a genuine indigenous Christian churches existing in 10/40 window we have understand that a minimal theological insights is indispensable to the task.